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How a Ceramist Transformed a Los Angeles Treehouse

WHEN RAINA J. LEE was looking to buy her first house in Los Angeles earlier this decade, her requirements were well defined: Must be east of Silver Lake, the city’s kombucha capital (east of Silver Lake seemed more laid-back). Must be small, because Lee’s material needs were modest. And must not be remodeled, because, as the sort of person who spent years making her own zines before she began working as a copywriter, Lee wanted to design her own space.

“Must have treehouse” was not on Lee’s list. Yet there it was, behind a postwar ranch-style home on the border of the neighborhoods Glassell Park and Mount Washington: a one-room, 68-square-foot shelter shaded by a Brazilian pepper tree, clad in fir planks and plywood and perched on stilts halfway up the property’s steep backyard slope, accessible only by traversing a rickety, bungee-cord-lined bridge. The owner of the main house had built the structure for his kids several years prior; when Lee first visited, the current tenants, a clique of recent college graduates, seemed to have been using it as a hookup spot. Nevertheless, Lee was enchanted: She bought the property — treehouse and all — in 2013.

IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO scroll through Instagram today without encountering all sorts of bespoke arboreal dwellings: There’s Terunobu Fujimori’s 2006 mud-and-wood Tearoom Tetsu, on the grounds of the Kiyoharu Art Colony in Hokuto, Japan; or the Stockholm architecture firm Tham & Videgard’s 2010 glass Mirrorcube, decorated with Alvar Aalto furniture and camouflaged amid the ancient pines of northern Sweden. They welcome travelers — as well as theories about their enduring appeal: Do treehouses speak to our primordial desire to climb? Or do they perhaps represent a respite from our increasingly digital existence, an occasion to savor our overheating planet before it’s too late?

Lee’s new treehouse, however, was less ambitious — it was, she said, “just a place to come and read.” But while earning her M.F.A. in film and media studies at the New School in 2015, Lee wandered into a Brooklyn ceramic studio and was instantly entranced. Soon after, she settled on her own distinctive style: wheel-thrown and slab-built vessels, alternately bulbous and blocky, often enlivened with cratered volcanic glazes in shades of green, blue, yellow and lavender. Such items, of course, take up space, and Lee’s 978-square-foot main house didn’t have much to spare. So in early 2018, her partner, Mark Watanabe, an architect, lined one wall of the treehouse with plywood shelves supported by salvaged pine branches and installed a tea table of his own design in the center of the space. Suddenly, Lee had a showroom, and though her ceramics are now sold at boutiques including Seattle’s Totokaelo, New York’s Michele Varian and Los Angeles’s Poketo, she’s lately been hosting impromptu sales in her treehouse.

Behind Lee’s hide-out, at the base of Mount Washington, the city seems to give way to wilderness. On the surrounding slopes, houses are scarcer than coyotes. Dirt roads meander through the long California grass. Against this landscape, the treehouse is a threshold between earth and sky, woman and nature — an outpost at the edge of civilization. “I do raku firing over there,” she says, glancing down through the dense foliage toward the kiln on the back patio from which she removes ceramics at 1,900 degrees Fahrenheit before depositing them in a trash can stuffed with newspaper and covering the receptacle as its contents burst into flame — the process by which her wares achieve their iridescent rainbow finishes. “And it’s fine: Nobody really cares. This is still a wild place.”

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